The Indonesian tradition of building wooden boats will soon vanish as rising timber prices and dwindling supplies force manufacturers to seek other materials. Many substitutes, like those derived from oil, are unrenewable.
So farewell another craft in an archipelagic nation that built its power and wealth through maritime excellence and inter-island trade?
Not if Gabriel Lerebours, a footloose young French botanist on a personal mission to save the industry can maintain his energy and determination. His quest: Build boats with bamboo.
The plant is low cost, sustainable and fast growing. It’s used for chopsticks and high-rise scaffolding. If hungry, it can be eaten. If creative, turn it into paper. If brutal, use it to torture. That’s versatile, dong!
But it’s also rough and ugly, commonplace, splits and harbors beetles. It’s not sleek and sexy like the flash sea cruisers made from the evil composite.
“Fiberglass is really killing the know-how of Indonesian boat builders and diminishing the great diversity of craft,” said Gabriel. “I hope we can save the skills and make the wood boat industry competitive again.”
Why bother? Gabriel’s arrival in Indonesia was fortuitous. His original destination was the Indian subcontinent. In another era he might have been a botanist aboard a vessel like Antoine D’Entrecasteaux’s Esperance exploring the Pacific in the 18th century.
Now 25 he’s been fascinated by nature since childhood, a member of generation green wanting to redress the damage inflicted on the planet by its elders. The son of a Paris doctor he completed masters degrees in science and business.
He could have settled into a laboratory or pursued a doctorate. Instead he conceived of a low-cost boat made of bamboo that could be used in developing countries. Not a raft but a five-meter long, one or two person prau (sometimes written as ‘prahu’ in English) constructed of bamboo composite, with an out-rigger and triangular sail.
Composites combine different materials for a stronger final product. Like cement, sand and water make concrete. In boat building fiberglass has been a popular, easy-use resource.
But it depends on oil-based resins. Disposal is also a problem because the stuff won’t burn or decompose. Gabriel talks of graveyards in Europe, full of dead boats.
The Parisian had never been to Asia till this year, nor had he seen bamboo growing outside a botanical garden. Using crowd-funding appeals he raised 4,000 Euros (Rp 60 million) for an NGO, but says he hasn’t been able to access the money.
A sponsor who offered seven times that sum later changed his mind.
Still resolute and using his own savings he went to Bangladesh, a country with ties to French fiberglass fighters. In 2010 another eco-idealist, Corentin de Chatelperron, 26, took six months to sail a boat partly made of jute from the Bengal Delta to France.
In Chittagong Gabriel met the plant that he’d been courting for so long in its natural habitat.
“It was growing in a Buddhist temple yard,” he said. “I found it really surprising. The color and the light were amazing.”
His research showed the nation of 150 million was poor, had little timber and needed boats. But there were other facts only a personal visit could uncover.
“Bangladesh is rich in steel from breaking down old ships for scrap,” he said. “They have to import wood from Burma. They prefer steel boats.
“The other factors were social and ethical. Bamboo is used as shelter for the poor. If an industry developed around bamboo for boats, people would be deprived of building materials.”
Undeterred despite three months becalmed, he went to Anji in China, the world center for bamboo products and seemingly the ideal place to build a boat.
Within six weeks he realized his project would get smothered by mass production in a district that produces 12 million bamboo poles a year.
Still hunting for a friendly factory, and equally important, someone who’d appreciate his vision, he headed to Malaysia only to learn that most boatbuilding expertise is supplied by Indonesians.
It was time to jump a jet again, this time Singapore to meet manufacturers, though he found little interest in bio-composites.
Using the Internet to research, inquire and make contacts, Gabriel clicked his way through a meandering trail of informants. Have laptop, will travel.
Traversing a sea of sailors, boat builders, cultural historians and rafts of writers and academics he eventually encountered naval architect Daniel Rosyid from Surabaya’s Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS).
“This idea isn’t entirely new,” said Dr Rosyid. “ITS has done research on partial substitution of timber boats using laminated bamboo components.
“Gabriel proceeds further by building an entire traditional boat that’s relatively small, using laminated bamboo. The prospect is promising but we need a real prototype project to see its viability.”
Back on the bus, this time to Kediri and the High Touch bamboo furniture factory, deep in the East Java city’s sugarcane fields.
The owner, Swiss ex-pat Tony Rush (above, right), a man with 27 years experience of working with bamboo, could have told him to come back with grayer hairs and something more solid than a digital image of a fantasy boat.
Instead he said: “This is very interesting. Not a big problem.” Which is not what you’d expect from someone born in a landlocked nation more into skiing than sailing.
Learning as they go, factory workers have sliced long bamboo poles into thin laths. These are then stuck together to make planks to be moulded into the hull. The composite is bamboo and glue.
The yet unnamed craft will probably be tested later this month (Oct) in the nearby Brantas River, the serpentine watercourse that drains much of East Java’s fertile lowlands.
If she meets all expectations more could follow.
“The long-term vision is to grow and use bamboo in a sustainable and ethical manner, based on the principles of social entrepreneurship,” said Gabriel.
“If this project is successful it could have a real impact on society.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 28 October 2013)